Tag: education

More rant on higher education

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a rant on my blog. I’ve been muted by the responsibilities of child care and a new job, but the drought is over!

My ire has been raised by this article in the TES where university academics are bemoaning the fact that they may actually be compelled to hold qualifications in teaching.

The core information in the piece is that the Higher Education Statistics Agency is compelling universities to provide anonymised data on the teaching qualifications of their staff. Academics fear the data will be used for “foolish” ends and may make such qualifications compulsory.

Oh the humanity!

It isn’t like I have no working knowledge in this area – I worked in universities for 10 years: as a PhD student, a postdoc, a weird intermediate state at Cambridge and finally as a lecturer. In all that time I received approximately 4 days training on how to teach. I taught students in small groups, practical classes and lectures.

Teaching well is a skill and it is ironic that, in institutions which award qualifications to people, the idea that qualifications in your profession might be useful is a radical idea and a thing which must be opposed.

An interviewee for the piece lets the cat out of the bag, he says: “If you want to maintain an active research life, you need to devote… 24 hours in the day towards your research. These [teaching] qualifications take time and effort to obtain, and anything that takes away from research time makes it more difficult to stay in the research excellence framework”.

Remember this when you or your offspring are planning on spending £9k per year to attend a university because the view that any teaching effort is a distraction from research is common.

Outside academia qualifications are seen as something of a benefit, if I had a teaching qualification it would be on my linkedin profile in a flash!

Imagine buying a rather expensive car and being told “None of the designers or engineers who made this car had any qualifications in making cars but they’ve been doing it for years”. It’s the very core of teaching: learning stuff you wouldn’t learn by experience.

So, there is my rant.

GCSE results through the ages

This year there is a fuss because GCSE pass results have not gone up as anticipated. Ultimately this turns out to be an issue with a new English exam which was marked generously in the January sitting when compared to the June sitting, thus relatively disadvantaging the later sitting in this year.

But aside from this, here is an graph showing pass rates for GCSEs since they started in the late eighties:


(source: BBC News)

A steady increase in those achieving grades A-C from 40% when the exam was introduced in 1988 to over 60% now. Never mind the unfairness within this year, what about those disadvantaged by taking the exams a few short years ago?

This behaviour is also reflected in A-level results, below is a graph showing the percentage of A grades since the 1970s.


(source: BBC News)

We examine students for several reasons:
1. To provide confirmation that they know certain things in order to be accepted onto further courses or employment;
2. To provide “ranking” information so we might pick the “best” candidates either to accept onto a course, or to employ;
3. To measure the performance of schools, arguably this is a serious misuse of examinations.

It would appear our examination system is focused on 2 rather than 1 but is not sensitive because ever more people are awarded higher grades each year which means distinguishing the best students is ever harder, and the graphs above suggest we cannot make year to year comparisons.

Previously A grades at A-level were awarded as a fixed proportion of the cohort, similarly the other grades. So for example the students with the top 8% marks were awarded an A grade. This scheme has some merit: it assumes that that students have the same performance distribution year on year and uses this property to derive grade boundaries.

My performance at work is graded in a similar way; in my case this is a poor scheme – there are no objective measures of my performance against my colleagues in the form of an exam. Furthermore the distribution is enforced in groups of less than 20 people; there are statistical tests to establish whether a distribution of grades matches a prescribed distribution – these tests come with a caveat that they are invalid for samples smaller than about 50.

However, for a schools examination system these problems are rather less relevant: we have an objective examination system and a cohort of thousands. The current system asks us to believe that every year students are getting better and better: todays A-level students are three times as good as the A-level students of the 1980s, and the GCSE students of today are 50% better than those of the 1980s. Most people outside the education system will find this difficult to believe, and not just because they took their exams in the “olden days”. For the record: I took my A-levels in 1988, and the old fashioned O’ levels in 1986 prior to the introduction of the GCSE.

The current scheme has a strong whiff of political necessity: how can you show your changes to the education system are a success if your marking system is such that grades are awarded in fixed proportion? The current system allows you to show year on year advances, like the production of tractors in the Soviet Union.

Bad at games

A little while back I was sitting down with colleagues for coffee, we were bemoaning the grim time we had at school in PE (physical education) lessons. My colleagues and I are all scientists, we excelled in other areas at school. For much of my school life I abhorred “games” lessons, if there were teams to be picked then I would be second to last to be selected – just before the fat kid in the class. I have a clear memory of members of my own team attacking me on the rugby pitch. These experiences were common to my colleagues. It isn’t even that I am particularly unfit, it was simply that I didn’t get on with organised team sports or activities; I couldn’t see the point.

My revelation was that there are no doubt a multitude of parallel groups that said the same of their maths lessons, physics lessons, English lessons… They did not excel at the activities with which they were presented, they couldn’t see the point of them and ultimately they have found they have little relevance to their vocations but they needed to get something from those lessons.

For me finding the way is simply to go to the gym three times a week at the crack of dawn, engaging in a variety of slightly pointless activities whilst listening to radio 4’s Today program and watching soundless “Heartbeat”. I wish my PE lessons had given me this 30 years ago.

University is not the universe

Today is A-level results day in England and Wales – A-levels are your passport to university and seem to be seen as the be all and end all of the school education system. Today we are provided with the annual entertainment of noting that this story is usually illustrated in the press with attractive young ladies (often jumping), and the rather shocking news that this is driven as much by certain schools* as it is by journalists. Tomorrow we can expect stories on how A levels are getting easier.

This does detract from the key point of the day: which is to mark the achievement of academically inclined students who have been working industriously for the last couple of years whilst they battle with the horrors of being a teenager. Well done to you all!

Over the past 20 years or so it seems our entire focus has been on getting people to university to do degrees and build the knowledge economy. But are we right to place so much emphasis on attending university? Is this a piece of cargo-cult science whereby we have observed in the past that people who go to university are often more “successful” than those that don’t and assume that the “going to university” bit is the key to success – therefore if we can get more people to go to university they, and the country, will be more successful?

Amongst the great battle over tuition fees, those that do not attend university, who missed out on this often middle-class rite of passage were entirely ignored. We don’t celebrate people who go off to learn how to be plumbers, electricians, carpenters and so forth. We don’t celebrate the people who I work with, who joined the company out of school and have done university degrees part-time. We don’t celebrate the now increasing numbers going off to do apprenticeships. These are all people, equally valuable to society, whose jobs simply don’t require a degree to do their jobs.

*article by Chris Cook at the FT, available by free registration